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The age old question that has been asked to all doctors and spinal therapist. The short answer is yes, it is generally safe to crack your own spine and except in rare cases it won’t cause any significant harm. That does not mean that you should ever do it. Here is why. 

First let us consider a healthy back. In a healthy spine, the vertebrae stack on each other in intricate fashion with the disc, strong ligaments, muscles, and connective tissues supporting an upright posture. The nerves control the spinal muscles to coordinate an amazing array of movement patterns. Truly the human spine is a marvel of bioengineering.  However as with any structure, problems can occur. 

The first problem is usually stiffness. Stiffness is the enemy of the spine. It starts with muscle tightness. The muscles then pull on the joints and begin locking the spinal joints. This muscle and joint tightness is what is really happening when we think ‘I need to crack my back’ or ‘my back feels out’.  

To some people that feeling of cracking the spine is a pleasure like no other. A little twist in the office chair gets a nice satisfying crunch and immediate release. The tension fades and the back feels immediately looser. However the relief is usually temporary, over the next hours the tightness builds up again and the feeling that it needs to be ‘cracked’ returns.  It is not so uncommon for people that get so addicted that they crack their own back or neck 10-20 times a day. 

The reason that self-cracking doesn’t give lasting relief has to do with the mechanics of the spine. As mentioned already the problem is one of tight muscles and joints in the spine. When you try to crack your own spine the tight joints are not the ones that get opened. The force goes by the path of least resistance and the joints above and below the problem make the sound. So in effect, the tight joints remain tight and already loose joints around get looser. The underlying issue remains. 

It should be mentioned that there are some extreme cases. Sometime people will crack themselves using lever such as pulling on the chin with the hands and forcibly twisting the neck. This should be avoided. While it is rare, there is an artery that runs through the vertebrae in the neck and in 1:1million cases this could be damaged.  It would also be possible to injure nerves, fracture vertebrae (if you are very osteoporotic), strain muscles or ligaments.  While this may read as a quite scary list, the day-to-day reality is that millions of people are cracking their own spine with little if any adverse affect.

While the risks may be minimal it is still not ideal to feel back stiffness and feel like the ‘spine is out’. To get lasting relief you need to go to the causes of the issue and deal with both the muscle and joint tightness. 

What you can do about it

  • See a therapist trained in treating the spine. In most countries this would be an Osteopath, chiropractor, manipulative physiotherapist or a medical doctor trained in spinal manipulation. You want someone that will work on the soft tissue as well as the spine. 
  • Avoid self-manipulating. Hard as it may be, to resolve the problem you will need to avoid cracking your own back. Incidental cracks shouldn’t be worried about but avoid intentionally cracking the spine and supplement it with the next steps.
  • Muscle stretching. Far better than ceding to the urge to crack, you should go through a static muscle-stretching regime. This will ease some of the tension and take away part on the problem. 
  • Mobility exercises. Anyone who has done a Pilates or yoga class will be familiar with joint mobility exercises. The most common is when you are standing and fold forward from the neck, trying to feel each vertebrae moving individually. This exercise can work through tight areas of the spine and help regain full mobility.  
  • Yoga/ Pilates/ tai chi. These classes are quite good at balancing muscle tension and loosening joint tightness at the same time. 

Over time and with perseverance you can loosen the tight muscles with stretching, loosen the joints with mobility exercises and balance the posture with exercise programs. Eventually the need to crack diminishes as the issues resolve.  

Dr. Shea Trattler

With 12+ years experience as an osteopath, Shea has treated from all walks of life, all age groups and with a wide scope of problems. He believes in longer treatment sessions to enable time for people to relax into the treatment while working to improve and educate his clients to achieve better health.